Opinion | The Trump Train Is Getting Very Crowded

Opinion | The Trump Train Is Getting Very Crowded


Gail Collins: Bret, I have a feeling this is the last time I’m going to ask you about the Republican presidential primaries. Things seem to be winding up fast. Ron DeSantis is out — don’t think we’re gonna miss him.

Bret Stephens: Nope.

Gail: If DeSantis weren’t such an awful candidate, this toppling of his campaign might be a little sad. But as it is, it’s — sorta dull, actually. DeSantis’s endorsement of Donald Trump as “superior to the current incumbent” wasn’t exactly moving.

Bret: The Trump endorsement was dishonorable but probably inevitable, politically speaking. If Trump wins the presidency, DeSantis will have to live with him as a governor; if Trump loses, he can try to court Trump’s voters in 2028. That’s assuming Trump isn’t on the ballot in 2028.

And of course, there’s still a certain governor from South Carolina.

Gail: New Hampshire’s tomorrow, and even if Nikki Haley wins, it isn’t very likely she’ll be going any farther. Which means Trump will, for all practical purposes, be the nominee by the middle of this week. You want to offer up any positive thoughts?

Bret: I have none.

Gail: Aw, c’mon. I know you’re anti-Donald, but at least tell us something chipper the rational part of your side is thinking.

Bret: I think you’re referring to an essay I wrote called “The Case for Trump … by Someone Who Wants Him to Lose.” Some readers accused me of normalizing Trump. But it was written in the spirit of know your enemy.

Trump’s opponents have consistently done us all a disservice by underestimating his strength, misunderstanding his appeal and misunderestimating (to borrow a word) his presidency. And we’ve done our side an even bigger disservice by too often being smug and moralistic.

Gail: You know, it’s been a long time since I heard a Trump critic articulate a defense of Trump. Appreciate the chance for a needed shaking-up. Not looking forward to it, but go on.

Bret: His strength came from seeing, and saying, what most of America’s coastal elites weren’t: that life wasn’t getting better for middle- and working-class America, that unchecked immigration was a serious problem and that elite institutions, particularly academia and the news media, had become preachy and untrustworthy. His appeal lay less in his bigotries than in the sense that he hated, and was hated by, the people they hate — and he didn’t hold back. And his presidency was not the unmitigated disaster his critics claim: Operation Warp Speed was a triumph, as were the Abraham Accords, as was a pretty robust economy, at least until the pandemic.

Gail: Going along with you on Operation Warp Speed, which made for relatively efficient Covid vaccine production. Will take your word for it that the Abraham Accords had a long-running positive outcome.

However, let’s not gloss over a few details like the big federal deficits brought on, in good part, by an enormous tax cut for the rich. And Jan. 6. Bottom line is that I get your drift. Even though I don’t agree with it, it’s a well-thought-out drift.

Bret: If we’re going to defeat Trump in November, we’ll have to do a lot better than just keep repeating, “Orange man bad.”

Gail: So very ready for your to-do list.

Bret: Well, the hour is late for President Biden, and my preferred option remains to see the first lady persuade her husband to step aside around the time of the Democratic convention, so that the party can choose a new ticket — ideally Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan governor, with Adm. Jim Stavridis, a former NATO commander, as her running mate for foreign policy gravitas.

But let’s assume that isn’t happening. My first piece of advice for Biden is: abortion, abortion, abortion.

Gail: Certainly a good issue for the Democrats — which Trump, who was never anti-choice until he considered running for president, would have a hard time fighting about. So far, his dodge has just been to talk about doctors murdering fully developed fetuses.

As long as DeSantis was in the race, Trump had the advantage of looking more moderate than … somebody. But now he’ll be up there against Biden, a lifelong Catholic and family man, who still believes in women’s rights for all.

Bret: Which brings me to my second piece of advice for Biden: judges, judges, judges. Abortion rights aren’t the only things that hang in the balance if Trump is elected. Clarence Thomas has suggested overturning the marriage equality decision and even the right to contraception. That should motivate one or two voters interested in the possibility of lawful nonprocreative sex in their lifetimes. Maybe Biden should run an ad that says, “Vote for Trump and you’ll be, you know, every which way except the good one.”

Gail: Wow, envisioning that billboard now.

Bret: I’m offering this as campaign advice to Biden. But he should stop yapping about how great Bidenomics has been — most Americans just don’t feel that happy with the economy — or how Trump presents an existential threat to democracy. The latter might be true, but I doubt it’s going to move the electoral needle.

Gail: I dunno — Jan. 6 seems like a pretty powerful image to me.

Either way, you do seem to think Biden should run a negative campaign — about how bad Trump is rather than anything great Biden can do. I’d like to see at least some of the latter.

Bret: Fear works as a political tactic. I just suspect that Democrats have overplayed the Jan. 6 card, so it just doesn’t have the emotional resonance it used to.

Gail: Well, I’d love to see them arguing this stuff out in person. Do you think there’ll be any presidential debates this fall?

Bret: Third piece of advice for Biden: Offer to debate Trump three times. The contrast can be instructive.

Gail: Yes on debates. Although Biden’s not the world’s greatest public speaker, it’s interesting that Trump declined to debate his Republican opponents.

Bret: All Biden has to do to win is lose neither his temper nor his train of thought.

Gail: Just want to go back for a second to your thoughts about abortion and the courts. When Trump’s talking to a conservative crowd, he sometimes gives himself credit for rolling back Roe v. Wade, since he nominated the justices who put Dobbs over the top. It’ll be interesting to see how he spins that this fall.

On the plus side, Biden can remind the country how successful he’s been in fixing bridges and roads and getting new and much-needed infrastructure projects underway. He’s started a real battle against climate change and coastal erosion. Under his administration, women have more means of protection against gun-wielding ex-boyfriends. He’s been fighting hard for lower drug prices and relief for ex-students bowed down by excessive college debt.

I know some of those achievements don’t warm your heart.

Bret: Probably not as much as they warm yours, though I do like infrastructure. Truth is, if Biden were running against Nikki Haley, I’d vote for her. But a vote for Trump is just an invitation to the furies, both foreign and domestic. His victory would be great for Vladimir Putin and devastating for Volodymyr Zelensky. It would weaken the center right and center left while energizing both the MAGA faithful as well as the social-justice warriors. It would debase our culture, debilitate our democracy, disorient our allies and drive normal people nuts.

If the price for avoiding that is Biden’s meh presidency, I’ll take it.

Gail: Well, not an endorsement I expect to see quoted at the Democratic convention, but I’ll bet it could move some of the reluctant Republicans out there. “Say yeah to meh!”

Bret: Since we can’t get away from the topic of Trump, any guesses about who his veep pick will be?

Gail: Well, obviously Mike Pence ruled out a return with his shocking decision to actually follow the Constitution after Trump lost the 2020 election. So there’s going to be a new face, and there’s a widespread theory it’ll be a woman. Makes perfect sense — it’d soften Trump’s image, and there are plenty of right-wing female elected officials who’d be happy to prop up his candidacy.

Bret: Very sexist of you: I can think of plenty of women who are Trump’s equal in the awful, mean and callous department. Arizona’s Kari Lake? Give me some more-reasonable names.

Gail: Nikki Haley actually is one, but there’s no way Trump would pick a person who’s got such a high profile herself, not to mention one who’s been running for his job all winter.

Bret: I think she’s also ruled herself out, much to her credit. She’s even been going after Trump’s mental fitness after he seemed to confuse her with Nancy Pelosi.

Gail: Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, gets mentioned a lot and recently Representative Elise Stefanik from upstate New York. Stefanik is the one whose questioning of the head of Harvard put the poor woman on a short slide out of office.

Trump reportedly called Stefanik “a killer,” which from him is an enormous compliment. She’s only 39, but I could imagine her getting the nod.

What do you think?

Bret: Stefanik or Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. He’s pleasant and ingratiating, a tall drink of water. She’s aggressive and unscrupulous, a triple shot of moonshine. And unlike Pence, she’d follow Trump straight to hell. Were it up to me, I’d choose Scott, which makes me think he’ll choose Stefanik.

Gail: On the issue of terrible decisions by Republicans, I generally follow your instincts. But I do think he wants a woman, so Stefanik looks like a serious possibility.

Bret: Gail, before we sign off, I have to commend Sam Roberts’s wonderful obituary in The Times for Edward Jay Epstein, the writer and journalist who raised nettlesome questions about everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to Edward Snowden’s loyalties. Epstein wasn’t always right, but he cultivated the art of intelligent skepticism better than just about anyone out there. In this age of credulity and certitude, we need more gadflies like him as models for what good journalism should be.



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